Pros: The beautiful, captivating stage design and stellar performances by the entire cast.
Cons: Many questions were raised, only few explored in-depth.
In 1842, the last man in England stood trial for blasphemy, having dared to speak publically about his non-belief and shocking the political classes with his atheist views. A poor socialist teacher, George Holyoake’s life was turned upside down as he tried to stay true to his convictions in the face of an unwavering judicial system and grave personal tragedy.
The 1960s, play’s author John Osborne could not have guessed how much A Subject of Scandal and Concern would resonate over 50 years later, in a society where free speech is still not absolute. As a result, it is a timely moment for the play to be staged at the Finborough Theatre as its London premiere.
It is, in many ways, an unhappy play, as the intelligently articulate, if stuttering, Holyoake (played beautifully by Jamie Muscato) attempts to use reason and moderation to convince the jury and his opponents of the injustice to trial him for speaking up for his beliefs. It raises many questions – so much so that I wished the play had been longer, in order to address them in more depth – about the existence of God, the excesses of the Church, the morality of standing by one’s convictions when it will hurt others and about the argumentative trick of using one belief (atheism) to denigrate another (socialism).
It is a rather wordy play and, in any other production, might have felt dated, but strong performances from the entire cast and beautiful stage design outmanoeuvre these difficulties. I particularly liked the captivating and clever use of simple wooden frames that formed, in turn, a court, a kitchen table and a prison.
A heart-breaking ending reveals the personal price Holyoake and his family paid for his convictions. In many ways, the ending renders Holyoake’s staunchly held principles as unjust as the system that thought them wrong.
Author: John Osborne
Director: Jimmy Walters
Presented by: Proud Haddock in association with Neil McPherson for the Finborough Theatre
Running Until: 7 June
Box Office: 0844 847 1652
Booking Link: http://www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk/productions/2016/a-subject-of-scandal-and-concern.php